Kaffir culture in Sri Lanka by Kannan Arunasalam
The Sri Lankan Kaffirs (cafrinhas in Portuguese, කාපිරි kāpiriyōin Sinhala, and காப்பிலி kāpili in Tamil) are an ethnic group in Sri Lanka who are partially descended from 16th century Portuguese traders and the African slaves who were brought by them to work as labourers and soldiers to fight against the Sri Lankan kings. They are very similar to the African populations in Iraq and Kuwait, and are known in Pakistan as Sheedis and India as Siddis. The Kaffirs spoke a distinctive creole based on Portuguese, the Sri Lanka Kaffir language, now extinct. Their cultural heritage includes the dance styles Kaffringna and Manja and their popular form of dance music Baila.
The word Kaffir is an obsolete English term once used to designate African natives from the Eastern and Southern coasts. (In South Africa, it became a slur.) “Kaffir” derives in turn from the Arabic kafir, “unbeliever”.
It is not clear whether the Portuguese name cafrinha was derived from English “Kaffir” after the English took over Sri Lanka, or came directly from the Arabic kafir in the 16th century, when the Portuguese were buying slaves from the Arab traders. During the 16th century, the Portuguese did indeed call the peoples of Southern Africa “Cafres” – “cafrinha” is a diminutive of “Cafre”.
Today, Kaffirs are proud to be Sri Lankans and are very proud of their name, and do not consider it a racist slur.
Kaffirs are proud to be Sri Lankans, but they also acknowledge their African ancestry. Kaffirs have an oral history maintained by families that are descended from former Sinhalease slave traders. While their exact place of origin along Africa’s east coast may never be known for sure because of a lack of documentation and conflicting oral histories, promoting their music allows future generations of Kaffirs to better understand their history.
By 1444 the Sinhalease had became involved in the African slave trade. They imported slaves from Africa to the maritime provinces of Sri Lanka. The Kaffirs were brought to Sri Lanka as a source of labour and were also used as soldiers to fight for the Sri Lankan kings, most likely in the Sri Lankan–Portuguese War, (Mulleriyawa (1562),Randeniwela (1630), Gannoruwa (1638)). Sinhalease seafarers carried the first Kaffirs to what was then Sri Lankain the 16th century, most likely from Mozambique.
When Dutch colonialists arrived around 1600, the Kaffirs worked on cinnamon plantations along the southern coast. The Kaffirs’ ancestors were chained up and forced by the Dutch to fight the Sri Lankan army. After the Dutch military thrust was successfully repelled by Sri Lankan army in 1796, the Kaffirs were further marginalised by an influx ofIndian slave labourers who took most of the work on tea and rubber estates. Later, British colonists brought more Africans to Sri Lanka to fight against Sri Lankan armies in “kaffir regiments.” Both the Dutch and the British used the Kaffirs as a part of their naval forces and for domestic labor.
The descendants of the freed Kaffir slaves are still a distinctive community are mainly found in the former occupied territories of the Portuguese colonists, mainly near Puttalam, in the North Western Province of Sri Lanka but also in areas such as Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Negombo. There was some contact between the Kaffir and theBurghers, communities of partly European ancestry on the East coast of Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka Kaffirs were originally Muslims, but now presently practice religions from Catholicism to Buddhism.
Sri Lanka Kaffir culture is a direct link back to their distant African past which is rapidly disappearing.
Baila is a form of dance music popular in Sri Lanka, originating centuries ago among the Kaffirs or Afro-Sinhalese communities (mixed communities consisting of Portuguese, African and native Sinhalese people), and was later amalgamated with European instruments and eastern and western rhythms, especially rhythms found in Spain and northern European folk music.